I often speak about my mother and her continuous pursuit of education even after her marriage and my father’s vehement support. They moved to Khartoum, Sudan immediately after their wedding and while he was a student of Islamic studies at the International University of Africa, she was learning Arabic. Many years and six children later, she went back to school for a Postgraduate degree from the University of Abuja, Gwagwalada. My parents’ emphasis on the importance of education has influenced my career so much that I currently teach at an all-girls boarding school in Abuja, Nigeria. Had my father told my mother – even once – that she belonged in his kitchen, his living room and the other room, I would perhaps have married at 14 (or less) to a man who also thinks like that.
It was Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, who said that his wife belonged in his kitchen, his living room and “the other room” (whatever that means). He said so at a conference in 2016, while standing next to Angela Merkel, the incumbent Chancellor of Germany. His wife, Nigeria’s first lady, had criticized him during an interview. She went public with her concerns for his administration, admitting that should things remain the same, she would not support his re-election. The president’s remark was excused as a joke then but now, in 2021, we can all see that the butt of the joke was, and still is, on him. If all Nigerian men were to confine their women to the kitchen, the living room and the other room, Nigeria will not only cease to progress as a nation, but it will also regress significantly.
The problem with the statement lies in its intentionality; a president stating that the first lady of a country belongs to domestic chores is an endorsement of every tradition or practice that subjugates female leadership and scholarship. It is a slap in the face of every organization, person or group that is actively trying to push for girl-child education, female empowerment and female leadership across the country. The message being passed on (of course) is that a woman’s primary work lies in cooking for her husband (belonging to the kitchen), being a trophy wife to be presented to guests (the living room) and living as a baby-making machine (the other room). It’s reiterating that women are not capable of making significant contributions to political, economic, social and religious domains; and even worse, it was coming from the president.
But this is not at all true. Women deserve seats on decision-making tables. While Nigerian president was dismissing his wife’s contribution in 2016, Rwanda was reporting 64 percent of seats occupied by women in the lower house of its national legislature, ranking number one among countries in support of women in politics. Nigeria’s negligible female numbers to date are not as a result of lack of qualified and interested women; but instead, it’s traditional norms that continue to subjugate women and deny their access to these tables. This tradition comes from the belief that women – like the first lady – belong in the kitchen, the living room and in the other room. And once we allow men to start thinking like that, we feed their superiority complex and allow ourselves to be reduced to domestic chores, when we could be making much more significant contributions to the development of our nation.
If you take one thing from this, take this: Amina J Mohammed is the fifth Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations and Chair of the United Nations Sustainable Development Group. She belongs anywhere she wants to be, and so do you.